Penny wise, pound foolish, city backs off chance to purchase historic home

In central Brooklyn, there’s a portal to the 18th century, a venerable Dutch farmhouse that anchors a quiet block in a residential neighborhood near Kings Highway.

The Wyckoff-Bennett House, which is located on East 22nd Street, near Avenue P, is one of maybe a dozen such structures still standing around the borough,all the more valuable because it has been continuously inhabited.

Yet, after a decade of negotiation and preparation, the city of New York has backed off an offer it made to purchase the property, say the home’s owners, Stuart and Annette Mont.

According to Stuart Mont, since 1999, the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation had expressed interest in acquiring the property, which comprises four tax lots, the landmarked 4,000-square-foot homestead, and an old barn.

Indeed, Mont said, after Parks Department officials led by then-Commissioner Henry Stern had looked over the building, an offer had been made to purchase the property for $2 million, not including the home’s contents, a plethora of antiquities that the Monts acquired when they acquired the house, “lock, stock and barrel,” in 1983, for $160,000.

The original deal, Mont said, would have allowed the Monts to live in the home rent-free, acting as its caretakers and providing security. The deal also included a proviso that would have given the city the right of first refusal with respect to any of the contents that the Monts might want to offer for sale, he noted.

A total of $2 million was even put into the city’s budget by the Brooklyn City Council delegation from 2003 to 2004 to cover the purchase of the property, “under pressure from the Brooklyn Parks Department,” Mont said

The property itself is currently valued in the city’s tax rolls at $2.1-2.2 million, Mont noted, and an appraiser he had hired in 2002 or 2003 had said the property – which he insures for $4 million — was worth upwards of $3 million.

However, Mont went on, after years of proceedings that included public hearings to remap the property as parkland, and after the paperwork was all drawn up, the city suddenly decided to decrease the amount of money it was willing to pay for the property, a change that was communicated to the Monts by the municipal agency responsible for property acquisition, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS).

Said Mont, DCAS had assessed $40,000 a year for 15 years, as rent, to cover the amount of time it determined the Monts might continue to live in the old farmhouse, thus decreasing the amount offered by approximately one-third, to about $1.3 million.

This had occurred even though, when the community board voted to approve the remapping of the property as parkland, it had stipulated that the contents of the home be included in the $2 million purchase price, Mont said.

As a result, the Monts, to put it mildly, are not happy campers.

“I said, it was ridiculous. They said, that’s the price. Take it or leave it,” Mont recounted. “I asked to speak to a supervisor and they said, forget it.

“We went through it all in good faith,” he went on. “It was all very positive, dealing with Parks people. There was never a question in our minds that, at some point, the city would have the deed and we would still be living here. This came literally out of nowhere.

“Instead of charging us for rent, they should be paying us for 24-hour security and caretaking,” Mont added.

Nonetheless, said Mont, should the city reconsider, “We definitely would be interested in reopening negotiations with the city.”

It’s not as if the city hasn’t paid as much as the Monts were originally offered, or more, to buy or restore historic buildings, he noted. For example, the city recently allocated $4.95 million to purchase and install an old barn at the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, on Clarendon Road. The city also has multi-million-dollar plans for the historic Bowne House, in Queens,which it acquired last year.

“They’re willing to spend that, but they’re not willing to spend $2 million for this house and barn, and everything,” Mont stressed.

“My instinct is that this is an opportunity for the city to be in control of part of its history and it fell apart over red tape from one city department,” he added.

Ron Schweiger, the Brooklyn borough historian, concurred. Noting that the old home was “a gem,” Schweiger asserted, “The city blew it by not going ahead and purchasing it for the Historic House Trust. The property itself and the artifacts are worth every penny of $2 million.”

“It’s a living museum for the 21st century,” added Brooklyn history aficionado Lee Rosenzweig, who sits on the board of the Lott House with the Monts. “You walk inside and you’re back in the 1700s.”

Contacted for comment, Phil Abramson, a Parks Department spokesperson, would say only, “The house is a wonderful artifact of our city’s history that we would have been happy to include among our collection of historic houses, but the city was unfortunately not able to negotiate terms with the current owners that were acceptable to both sides.”